But more than 100 years later, this ubiquitous formal ensemble is undergoing an identity crisis.
THEY WOULD NOT LET Dabiz Munoz into the club. In Spain, Munoz—one of the few chefs in the world with three Michelin stars—is constantly stopped in the street for a photo. But in London, in 2018, he was not allowed into a club for a meeting with a financier. “Why? They said it was because I was not dressed appropriately,” chuckles Munoz, who favours minimalist black sportswear and has a sponsorship deal with Nike. How did he interpret that? Simple. He wasn’t wearing a suit.
When one considers how menswear has been reshaped over the last 20 years, it seems remarkable that such an attitude still exists: that, just to enter London’s RAC Club, for example, you must wear a suit—but the club does allow its members to dispense with a tie over the summer months, though only after 4pm. So how did the suit begin its slippery slide down the popularity polls? Firstly, there’s been a breakdown in workplace dress codes, itself mirroring a breakdown in conventional workplace hierarchies. A study released earlier this year revealed that just one in 10 British workers wears a suit to work, with three-quarters of them now dressing down not just on Fridays, but every day. And they prefer it that way: it’s cheaper, more comfortable and creates a more relaxed working atmosphere. Over 40 percent said the suit no longer had a place in the office—unsurprisingly, given a fundamental shift at the heart of work in the 21st century towards freelancing, the gig economy, a blurring of work and leisure time and even big businesses wanting to present a more approachable image.
Certainly, following the lead of the dot.com boom, the rise of the start-up and greater entrepreneurialism, the suit is no longer expected attire outside of all but the most conservative of careers. Indeed, in some quarters it’s positively frowned on— symbolic of stuffiness and a lack of youthful dynamism. How often was Steve Jobs ever seen in a suit? Or Mark Zuckerberg? Or Richard Branson? Clearly, at some point in time, the suit lost its potency as a symbol of manhood.
No wonder, five years ago, precisely in a bid to cater to these types of businesspeople, even the international Institute of Directors—which for a century has required its members to wear ‘business attire’—finally gave in. It introduced a ‘ smart casual’ dress code allowing jeans and shorts but nothing “indecent” as a spokesperson put it. “So no Che Guevara T-shirts,” they added. The G8 meeting of world leaders has also encouraged more dressing down in a bid to foster a more ‘ intimate and informal’ atmosphere. Corporate monoliths JP Morgan and PwC have followed.
Secondly, there has been the influence of streetwear—once an age-bracketed niche, now, in effect, since its pioneers have grown up and won positions of power, accounting for the majority of menswear; and then this has been followed by the coup de grace to formality that has come in the guise of athleisure: the wholesale appropriation of sportswear—functional, comfortable, progressive—as everyday wear. That’s not just for the kid in a hoodie and sweatpants. That’s for the CEO in his simple separates made from the kind of technical fabrics once reserved for triathletes and mountain climbers.
And then there has been a more over-arching social trend: call it narcissism or selfie culture, a response to the endless consumer choice afforded by the Internet, or a break down in the identity once afforded by community, politics or the (ever more fragmented) workplace—but we’re all rampant individualists now, seeking to express that fact by any means necessary. The suit—as epitomised by Gregory Peck’s character in the 1956 film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, which even then was described by Adlai Stevenson as capturing a “crisis in the western world... collectivism colliding with individualism”— embodies conformity.
Just to be called ‘a suit’—to be associated with the perceived necessity of wearing one—is to be ranked among the endless, uncool worker bee nobodies, quietly desperate to be somebodies. The very word ‘suit’ stems from the Latin root ‘sequer’, meaning ‘to follow’. No wonder nobody wants to wear one anymore—and that’s before climate change or the killer humidity of places like Singapore.
Or do they? “I think there will always be some kind of occasion for the structured suit because people will always love the idea of dressing up for an event, of enjoying the opportunity to really run with that formality,” argues Toby Lamb, brand director of Richard James, a company that helped save the tailored suit when it launched in 1992, introducing more colour and pizzazz to what had become very staid indeed, giving it relevance once again. “But, the appeal of that formal aesthetic aside, there will be a requirement to change again.”
He cites the fact that, while a traditional suit remains its bestseller—for the time-being— Richard James is moving towards offering suits with a softness and lightness to them, in large part a product of the choice of cloths, with mills now making more woven blends to provide a more slouchy, cardigan-like ease, with more natural stretch but also shape retention and even water repellency. A jacket now is as likely to come in a jersey as a flannel. “So we can retain a formal aesthetic but use fabrics with an in-built performance that wasn’t there not that long ago,” explains Lamb. “And perhaps those performance qualities are what the suit needs to have now—formality with in-built technology.”
It’s time, in other words, for Suit 2.0—a version for a generation that not only cares about ease, but, perhaps more importantly, cares about the way it looks. Check out the red carpet, a special occasion for sure. The suit is still there but not in a form that would cut it in any but the most style-conscious of boardrooms: there’s a Ferragamo suit in powder pink, a Cerutti double-breasted number in bold forest green; an autumn/winter 2018 Paul Smith style in a crushed velvet, an avocado Prada suit with a big black stripe running up the inside leg, a Brunello Cucinelli one that’s at least half way round the circuit to becoming a track suit. About the only thing that makes them suits, as the suit has been known for much of the 20th century, is that both jacket and trousers go together. Mostly. This is the suit as a means to express personality too, rather than be subsumed to the charcoal-clad crowd.
Indeed, bigger picture, these times in which the suit is struggling to find its place might be an opportunity to examine exactly what the suit is for; and what the fundamentals of a suit amount to. Does the suit have to conform to the body? Does the suit have to have certain characteristics to still be defined as such?
As Vogue has noted, over recent seasons up-and-coming brands the likes of Abasi Rosborough, N Hoolywood and Public School have produced suits with Velcro closures, or with raglan sleeves, or with pullover jackets, or out of nylon. On the catwalks, the suit is still there, but increasingly in one of two modes—decidedly casualised or, as fashion tends towards of course, in an avant-garde mode. Balenciaga has played with the suit’s conventional proportions, for example, while Comme des Garcons has made its suits asymmetric; while brands the likes of Burberry, Balmain, Gucci and Bottega have mixed menswear into their women’s collection shows—an indication perhaps of how distinctly male attire the likes of the suit may be on the wane.
“The suit has to change because so many of us have a different lifestyle now, and the need to dress quite so formally is only a very occasional thing,” says menswear designer Oliver Spencer. “I think men can still take pleasure in dressing up to go out, but even then the suit we wear is a different kind of thing: it’s less stuffy, more colourful, more patterned, more interesting all round.
Yes, it’s a suit, but it’s not the kind of suit that, say, our grandparents would readily recognise as being such.”
Even at a company the likes of Gieves & Hawkes—of No. 1 Savile Row, a pioneer of tailoring— there are winds of change. For spring/summer 2019 it’s introducing what it calls its lightweight structure—basically a stripping out of all the padding and weight of a traditional English suit, and using stretch cloths. The result, as John Harrison, Gieves & Hawkes’ creative director, puts it, “looks just the same as one of our more traditional suits, but is much easier to wear and feels more comfortable. But still looks cool”.
What’s more, Harrison suspects that it’s the first small step in what will mirror a sea change in attitudes to the suit over the next two to three decades. “The fact is that I just can’t imagine my teenage sons ever wanting to wear—or really needing to wear—that kind of traditional tailoring,” he says. “That standard grey sharkskin suit? It’s just going to drift away.”
So does that mark the beginning of the end of the suit, as has been much heralded over recent years? Not quite. Tailoring houses report that while there’s a diminishing need to wear a suit in the workplace now, there is an increased demand to wear one for going out. “It’s as if there’s a recognition that it’s a tradition that we don’t quite want to lose yet,” suggests Harrison. And, he argues, there will always be a demand for Savile Row-style bespoke tailoring, even if that becomes increasingly niche, increasingly about personalisation and customisation and a trainspotter-like love of the craft— much as is happening with formal, Goodyear-welted footwear in the era of the sneaker.
But the suit itself might change so much that at least the idea of the suit—a garment that might be loosely defined as one in which the top and bottom halves sit well together, that chimes with certain, also changing social expectations—survives. Harrison predicts that the suit will become much more modular, much more streamlined—perhaps thermo-regulating, comfortable, minimalistic but still, in its own way, smart.
“It’s not quite Star Trek yet, but you can see a time when the suit will have to be reimagined,” says Harrison. “Why do suits have a lapel, for example? We just don’t need that level of sartorial finesse anymore. Yes, it is quite space-age, but you can see that stripping back of the form of the suit happening already. And certainly if I was to learn tailoring again I’d be tailoring in technical cloths. The result might still have a beautiful buttonhole, it would still have the craft, but it would be a much more modern product. And there’s no reason why historic companies the likes of Gieves & Hawkes can’t adapt to that. There’s no reason why they can’t tailor in Lycra, for example. The suit can move on.”
If only, perhaps, to keep up membership at the type of London club that refused Munoz entry. “Well, clubs are already making changes in relation to dress codes and I think those that haven’t probably never will,” says Rupert Wesson, academy director for Debrett’s, an authority on British etiquette, dress and social skills. “The idea of the suit seems to have been broadening out for decades—it used to mean a three-piece worn with very shiny shoes, and now it’s maybe just matching separates. And even events one used to have to wear a suit to have been hollowed out. Clearly the suit is in a state of decline. That said, my feeling is that the suit will never quite die. But then I spent 16 years in the army—so I’m used to a uniform.”
Richard Branson in a suit at the launch of his scheme to tempt businesspassengers to travel with Virgin Atlantic, 1984.
A suit as seen on a female form during Balmain Homme’s autumn/winter 2018 runway show; a common sight in fashion these days.
Savile Row, London— the world’s most famous suiting street.